CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


The prospect of going back out to the car was terrifying, but it went without incident. Nevertheless, Catherine didn't draw a long breath until they arrived back at the protective facility.

Once again, Jenny waited for them.

Catherine, who'd been feeling increasingly brittle during the silent ride back from the courthouse, was grateful her friend went first to Joe. She edged toward her own door, half-hoping to get inside before Jenny could turn.

"Cathy?"

She stopped in the doorway. "I'm okay, Jen." She answered Jenny's unasked question without turning.

"I don't know how you can be," Jenny said, practical as ever. "After all you've been through."

Catherine leaned her forehead against the cool metal of the doorframe. "It's okay," she repeated. "I'm going to be okay."

Jenny came up behind her. "It's all right, Cath," she said gently. "You don't have to be strong now. We're here, both of us, and we care about you."

Catherine jerked herself upright. "I'm fine," she insisted, and thrust herself through the doorway and into her room.

Jenny followed. "No, you're not."

That brought her around. "Yes," she said, more sharply than she'd intended. "I am."

"You didn't say three words in the car on the way back." Joe stood framed in the doorway. "That's not like you."

"I'm tired, Joe, okay?"

"It's been a long day," Jenny sympathized. "Want me to get you some dinner?"

"No," Catherine snapped, then thought better of it. "Yes. I don't know!" Feeling as if she might shatter at any moment, she sank down on her bed.

"Well?" Jenny asked, very gently, sitting beside her. "Which is it?"

"I'm not hungry," Catherine whispered. "But I know I should eat. I just feel... I don't know what I feel."

"Joe, go get Cathy something to eat, okay?" Jenny said. After he left, she got up to close the door. "Talk to me, Cathy," she urged when she came back. "Don't keep it all in."

Catherine shook her head. There were no words for the chaos of what she was feeling.

"Joe told me what happened this morning."

"This morning. Was it only this morning?"

"Is that what's upsetting you?"

Catherine shrugged. "Yes. But that's not all of it."

"What happened in court, too," Jenny guessed. "Vandt."

"I'm not afraid of him anymore, Jenny," she said. "I was, but I'm not anymore."

"That's good, isn't it?"

"I don't know. I don't know." The words came out in a rush, leaving her breathless.

"Why? What is it, Cathy? What's wrong?"

Catherine closed her eyes. "It's what I feel now. In place of the fear."

"What?"

"I hate him, Jenny."

"That's not surprising. So do I, and I've never even met the man."

Catherine shook her head. "Not like this. Not this fiercely. This intensely. It's consuming me. I sat on that stand this afternoon, and all I could think was how much he took from me. All the lives he's ruined." She bent her head. "Vengeance isn't pretty, Jenny. Especially when it's as vivid as it is in my imagination right now."

"You don't want to know what I'd like to do to him," Jenny said grimly. "After what he's put us all through. Go ahead and hate him, Cathy. Be angry with him. Be furious with him. He cost you nearly five years of your life. He tried to have you killed."

"But," Catherine asked faintly, "what does it say about me, that I can hate another human being this much?"

Jenny's arms went around her shoulders. "I think it means you're human, too," she said gently.

Catherine began to cry. Not a gentle weeping, but furious tears made up of all the frustration and deprivation of the past five years. Through it all, Jenny held her.

Finally the storm abated. Catherine sat up and wiped at her eyes with trembling fingers; Jenny plucked a handful of tissues and offered them instead.

"Thanks, Jen," she said. "For being with me. For understanding."

"You had to let it out, Cathy," Jenny said softly. "It was eating away at you."

"I think it would have destroyed me."

"You don't hate him anymore?"

Catherine had to think. "I think I do," she admitted finally. "I'm still angry. He took so much from me. My freedom. My trust. My faith in myself. But I think now I can deal with the hate. Learn to live with it." She gave a shaky laugh. "I'd like to think that maybe someday I'll be able to let go of it."

"He doesn't deserve your forgiveness," Jenny said harshly. "He's an evil man who's guilty of vile things. And you have to go back tomorrow and face him again."

That was a sobering thought. "Yes," she agreed faintly. "I do."

Catherine skipped her workout the next morning. Somehow, the tension-relieving effects didn't seem as necessary now. She dressed for the courtroom, then sat on her bed and waited. Jenny waited silently beside her.

After a while, Catherine glanced at the clock. It was past eight-thirty, and she was supposed to be in court at nine. "Joe's late," she commented. "He's supposed to be here, isn't he?" She knew Joe had spent the night in Jenny's room; he'd left around seven, intent on some errand or other.

"He said he'd be back in time to go with you," Jenny said, and looked worried. "You don't suppose..."

"Nothing's happened to him, Jen," Catherine said with more confidence than she felt. Yesterday morning was still vividly imprinted in her mind, and the massive bruise across her ribs throbbed an incessant reminder. "The attorneys must be expecting a wrangle over some legal point before the jury hears any more testimony. Probably over what I said yesterday. Joe may be there now, in the thick of things."

"You're probably right," Jenny conceded, but the little pucker creasing her forehead didn't go away.

Catherine got up and paced for a few minutes, but her shoes weren't suited to the restless, jerky way she moved, so she sat down again. Vincent's rose was tucked into the pocket of her suit jacket, and she fingered the pouch, then kicked off her shoes and began to pace once more. After a few minutes, Jenny got up and joined her.

Nine o'clock came.

"We could ask the guards," Jenny suggested.

"If they knew anything, they'd tell us," Catherine answered.

Nine-thirty. The interminable waiting was eating away at Catherine's composure. The worry Jenny tried to hide didn't help. They both jumped when the door to the room swung open.

"Joe!"

Jenny dropped the book she'd been staring at and rushed across the room, into his arms.

"Hey," he said, in surprise, cradling her against his chest. From the softly muffled sounds, Jenny must be crying.

"We were worried for you when you didn't come," Catherine explained. She was close to tears of relief, herself.

Joe patted Jenny's back and stroked her hair. "I'm sorry, babe," he said. "Things have been happening. I should have called."

"Yes," Jenny agreed forcefully, pulling away and wiping her eyes. "You should have."

"What's going on, Joe?" Catherine asked. "Why is court so late in convening this morning? I was supposed to be there to testify at nine..."

"Gabriel's dead."

"Dead?" She repeated it dumbly, unable to take in the meaning.

"They found him this morning. Coroner says it looks like poison."

Catherine was too stunned to do more than stare.

"Suicide?" Jenny asked.

"He didn't leave a note," Joe said. "If it was, I think it's because he saw the jury's faces after Cathy testified yesterday. And knew that even if his attorneys could get some of her last remarks stricken, it was too late. The jury'd heard her. Worse for him, the jury believed her. With all the testimony still to come - the doctor, the nurse, a couple of goons - he must have known he didn't have a chance of being acquitted.

"But the Feds are also investigating the possibility that it was done from the outside."

"Murder?" Catherine stared in disbelief. "Why?"

Joe spread his hands. "There's evidence Vandt was a member of some sort of world-wide cartel. The experts say it's possible the other members came to see him as a liability."

"And killed one of their own? That doesn't make sense, Joe." That was Jenny, sounding puzzled.

"Not unless you realize that Vandt had gone off the deep end," Joe agreed. "He was pursuing a personal vendetta instead of keeping the best interests of the cartel in mind."

"Personal vendetta...?" Catherine began, confused.

"The attack on you yesterday," Joe explained. "It was too late to change the verdict. He wanted you dead because you'd defied him. Because you'd destroyed him."

Catherine managed a shaky smile. "I wish I could believe that."

"Whether you believe it or not, it's true," Joe told her. "You brought down his empire practically singlehanded, Radcliffe. None of it would have happened without you."

"What happens now, Joe?" Jenny asked.

Catherine looked up. She was still locked into a little circle of thought that ran from testifying to Gabriel's death and back again.

Joe grinned. "We go home."

Home. When Catherine thought of it now, it was as a tantalizing place doomed to always dangle just out of reach.

"All of us?" Jenny persisted.

"Of course," Joe said. "All of us." He squeezed Catherine's hands and released them to sit back. "Come on, Radcliffe. I have a car downstairs."

"I have to pack," she said, feeling rather stupid. She glanced around the room, now crowded with treasured mementos sent one at a time in Vincent's parcels. "Don't I?"

"Grab the things that are really important," Joe advised. "Someone can box up the rest and send it on later." He grinned. "Unless, of course, you really want to waste half a day doing it yourself."

"No. Home." She said it aloud, and for the first time, it seemed real. "I'm going home." The word swelled in her and for a moment, she thought her heart might burst with joy. Home.

Vincent's rose was already in her pocket. She snatched up her parents' pictures and took her journal, with all the letters she'd written to Vincent, from a drawer. Joe was right. Everything else could be sent later.

There were no formalities to go through on the thirty-fifth floor. They were simply ushered through to the other elevator, which took them to a waiting car in the basement parking garage.

"Thanks, Tony," Joe told the driver. "I'll take it from here."

"Sure, Mr. Maxwell," Tony said. "See you later."

Joe slid into the driver's seat; Jenny climbed in the passenger door and slid over, making room for Catherine beside her.

Being outside after long confinement was strange, and they hadn't gone far when Catherine began to shake. "Jenny," she said, and her voice sounded choked.

Jenny glanced her way. Something in her face must have alarmed her, and she reached for Catherine's hand. "What is it, Cathy?"

"I don't know." She held out her free hand so Jenny could see how it trembled. "It's all happening so fast. I'm supposed to be in a courtroom right now."

"Be glad you're not."

"I am. I think I am. I know I ought to be." She managed an awkward smile. "I don't think I've dealt with it yet. All of it."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Joe interjected, glancing her way.

"That it's over. Am I really free, Joe? Can I really walk into that shop over there," she pointed to one at random, "and not be risking my life?"

He reached across Jenny and laid his hand over their joined ones. "He's dead, Cathy. I saw his body myself, before they took him away. He can't hurt you any more. And no one else has reason to."

It seemed too much to believe, but Joe seemed very sure. She gave a wavery smile. Jenny kept her hand, squeezing it for comfort as Joe drove up Central Park West.

"Where to?" Joe asked as they neared her old apartment.

Catherine did a rapid mental run-down on all nearby tunnel entrances. "Central Park," she decided. "Near the Ramble."

Joe cocked an incredulous eye in her direction, even as he turned into a park drive-through. "You get sprung after nearly a year in protective custody, and the first thing you want to do is walk in the park?" he asked.

Jenny, who must have had her own set of suspicions, shushed him. "Let her do what she needs to, Joe."

Catherine squeezed Jenny's hand gratefully. "Pull up over here," she directed. "It's close enough."

"Close enough to where?" Joe demanded. "There's nothing here but trees, some picnic benches. That big storm drain at the bottom of the hill. Unless you're planning to join the kids playing Frisbee over there."

Jenny gave his arm a little shake. "Don't ask too many questions, Joe." She turned to Catherine. "Will we see you again?"

Catherine had been gazing eagerly down the hillside, toward the massive pipe that Joe spoke of so disparagingly. She turned quickly. "Of course you will," she promised. "I'll get word to you soon."

"Good," Jenny said. "Because I want to meet Nicholas." Her voice dropped. "Vincent, too, if it's possible."

"I think it will be," Catherine said. She glanced from one face to another. She hugged Jenny, then leaned across to embrace Joe. "Thank you for everything."

She slipped from the car. A wide expanse of grass loomed between her and the storm drain and she hesitated. The open space was intimidating; out of habit, her eye picked out a dozen places where a sniper could be hiding.

But Joe had promised it was safe. And Vincent would be waiting.

Knees wobbly with anticipation as much as apprehension, she hurried down the little hill. Behind her, she heard the car start, but it hadn't moved when she reached the concrete pad in front of the big culvert. She stopped and looked back up the hill. Jenny waved. Catherine lifted her hand in response and waited until the car pulled away from the curb and wound around a curve and out of sight. A quick glance in the other direction confirmed that a line of shrubbery hid the storm drain from the teenagers playing Frisbee. No one was watching.

She plunged into the mouth of the pipe, suddenly frantic with haste.

Vincent was waiting, as she'd known he would be, and she hurled herself into his arms. He responded with restraint, cradling her gently. "You're hurt," he murmured. "How?"

"Yesterday." She pressed her head hard against his chest. "You must have felt yesterday?"

He nodded grimly. "I read the newspaper accounts this morning. They said you were not injured."

"I was wearing a bullet-proof vest. One of the shots hit me in the side. Glanced off, really. I'm bruised but not really wounded. Here." She pressed the appropriate place on his side.

His arms tightened, carefully avoiding the bruised area, and she felt his lips in her hair. She turned her face up for a kiss that aroused hunger in both of them; after a moment he tore his mouth away and pressed his cheek against her forehead. "I can't believe you're here."

"I can't believe it either," she said, and pulled back to look at him. "Where's Nicky?"

"He is well," Vincent assured her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. He pulled open the grate for her to pass through and kept her close beside him as they began the journey below. "I didn't tell him you were coming. I didn't want to raise his hopes and then have something happen to prevent you."

"I hope he's speaking to me." She shivered at the thought that he might turn away.

Vincent's arm tightened. "Catherine. Our son has missed his mother very much. He will be overjoyed to see you."

She managed a smile for his benefit, but he must have sensed her continued unease, because he stopped in the middle of the passage and turned her to face him. His hands gripped her shoulders.

"Our son loves you," he said firmly. "I know his heart nearly as well as I know yours. You must trust me on this."

"I do trust you. Only..."

His calm gaze prompted her to continue.

"Only I know how much you want this to be right between us, so I don't know how objective you are."

After a moment he smiled. "You may be right," he conceded. "But I believe I am. Shall we go on?"

"In a minute. First, I want to give you something."

He looked on with curiosity as she delved into her coat pocket.

"Here."

He took the little volume she offered. "The journal I sent." He glanced up. "Didn't you like it?"

It was her turn to smile. "I wrote in it nearly every day."

"These are your private thoughts and feelings, Catherine. There is no need to share them with me."

"No, you don't understand. It's for you, Vincent. I wrote it all for you. All the letters I couldn't send are here. I want you to have them."

He ran his fingers across the smooth leather cover. "I will read them," he promised. He tucked the book away in his cloak.

"And there's something else." She pulled the pouch out of her suit pocket.

"My rose."

He bent his head so she could slip the drawstring over and around his neck. His hand went to the little bag, cupping it the way she'd seen him do before. "I missed having it here," he admitted.

"Thank you for lending it," she said. "It helped."

"I'm glad."

In some strange way, giving him the book of letters and returning the rose made her feel better able to face whatever was to happen now with Nicholas. She took his arm and they set off again.

He led her toward the community chambers, then veered off into a passage she didn't recall having used before. The high-pitched shouts of children at play could be heard long before the tunnel terminated abruptly into a spacious chamber capriciously lighted by slanting rays of sunlight pouring through a fissure in the ceiling.

The floor of the chamber was covered with several inches of sand. In the center stood a climbing gym constructed out of what looked like PVC pipe and scrap lumber. A half-dozen of the smaller children swarmed up ladders or ramps, swung on ropes, or scurried across platforms to fling themselves down polished wooden slides.

Catherine scanned the children anxiously, wondering if she would even know Nicholas after all this time. Then she spotted a boy scrambling across the top of the gym.

Something inside clenched and twisted; she ached to run her hand over the long, fair hair tied at the nape of his neck. She wanted to touch his cheek and look into his eyes and see the trusting love that had always shone there.

"I'll call him," Vincent murmured.

She clutched at his arm. "No. Not yet. Just give me a minute..."

A minute to watch him. To savor the sight of him, unselfconscious and carefree as he played. He moved with an assurance he hadn't possessed a year ago, stretching easily to grasp a handhold and pull himself across a gap that made her cringe inside. He called something to one of the other children and then let himself down onto one of the high wooden platforms of the gym.

One of the children spotted Vincent and called a greeting.

Nicholas turned his head. "Daddy!" he shouted. "Watch me!" He reached for a rope that hung nearby - then froze for an instant before turning once again to look their way.

Catherine stopped breathing.

Nicholas poised on the platform, staring. His face told her nothing.

Other children played noisily; Vincent stood behind her, lending his strength. Catherine's awareness narrowed and focused until only the two of them existed - she and Nicholas.

He was motionless for so long that she began to wonder if he even recognized her. She'd been gone for nearly a quarter of his short life, after all, and she knew she no longer looked like the woman in Kristopher's portrait. Time and suffering had indelibly marked her.

Or perhaps he was only choosing whether or not to open himself to possible further hurt by letting her back into his heart.

She wished he would do something. Anything would be better than his dreadful, impassive stare.

He turned away, and Catherine's heart began to break.

With a deliberation that had been absent from his movements when he'd thought himself unobserved, Nicholas moved to the far side of the platform and onto a ladder. He climbed down slowly and stopped at the ladder's foot. He was scowling.

A year ago, that would have meant he was rebelling against something unpleasant.

She put out her hands. "Nicky," she said, pleading.

She never knew if it was the anguish in her voice, or merely the sound of it, but before the echo of his name had died away, the scowl disappeared and he'd flung himself forward, running. He stumbled in the deep sand, but caught himself with his hands and was up again before she could do more than flinch.

She dropped to her knees just in time.

"Mommy!" Nicholas shouted joyfully, and threw himself into her arms.


The End